Bonsai Tree Tips
for Beginners

These bonsai tree tips and bonsai techniques come from many years of growing bonsai.  You will see examples, and further explanations, throughout this site.  They are gathered here to encourage beginners with some of the very basics, often missed.

In the Beginning

Expect your bonsai to change. no bonsai ever stays exactly the same!  Take pictures along the way. You will be amazed at how a tree can change as it develops. Before and after pictures are lessons in themselves.

Bonsai Tree Tips for Styling

Study Your Tree Before Cutting

Where to Start - Discover the nebari first.  Sometimes you think you've found the front, then when you expose more of the base of the tree (nebari) you discover your choice doesn't work!

Finding the Top - The two most valuable ways to determine the top of a bonsai are “taper” (where does it stop tapering?) and “the rule of thirds”.  See below.  

First Branch - Don’t get stuck on always using the existing first branch.  Sometimes you will have a better (usually taller) tree if you remove the obvious first branch.

White pine bonsai

On the other hand don’t be too quick to remove an especially long, low first branch

This white pine by Rita and Marc Cooper in England, is a very good example of how it can be successfully used. 

Learning to see the Future 

Many of us learned the ‘Rule of Thirds’ in our basic bonsai lessons. It's not the perfect answer, but it is often a great guideline, especially for traditional upright trees. 

Before you cut, always turn your tree around several times ... and even position it at different angles.  Once you determine where the first branch is, consider that the first third.

By mentally adding the two thirds above the first branch, you will know approximately where the top should be.  Cover anything above that imaginary line with The Magic Cloth. 

Now you can see what it could look like. It may be a little taller or shorter but this is still an excellent guideline for finding the top. What's going to happen when you remove that branch?

Will it change where the top should be?  Will a new branch grow where you want it?  Think about what the extenuating results will be.  Should you move the Magic Cloth to another branch?

A Wire Analogy

Bonsai Wire is to bonsai as braces are to teeth.  Both are occasionally adjusted, removed when the job is done and neither is permanent.

Bonsai Aging Techniques
Jin and Shari 

When shaping a bonsai jin (dead branch) it is especially important for it not to look like you stuck it in a pencil sharpener! 

Before you cut off any branches (especially on junipers) jin them. Then you have the opportunity to choose which ones to keep. 

Also, take advantage of recently stripped long branches.  While they are still green, give them additional shapes with wire. When they dry, they will hold the new shape. 

Wiring after they have dried out will not work.   (In addition to creating jins, bonsai pliers are perfect for handling wire, especially in tight spaces.)

Think about how you want to shape the shari.  Not sure?  Use chalk to draw on the bark and fill in the area you are contemplating.  Chalk makes it much easier to "see the future," and it's erasable! 

Tips for 'Sappy' Plants

Pine sap is especially difficult to remove with regular soap. Try rubbing your hands with mayonnaise first.  It will help dissolve the sap.  Then you can more easily wash it away with soap and water.  (Save a few of those individual mayo packets from restaurants,  keep them with your bonsai supplies.)

Ficus sap is another troublesome result of pruning. Lightly water the Ficus bonsai tree leaves - misting will work without getting things too wet. Your hands will not end up as badly stained.  (You'll thank me for this bonsai tree tip.)

Watering Bonsai Tree Tips

Take a bonsai tree tip from nature when watering bonsai - a nice slow rain waters trees thoroughly.  It also cleans the leaves.  Potted plants, in general, stay moist longer after a nice gentle rain.  

The late Joe Samuels spent a long time experimenting with "indoor" bonsai.  He often gently watered them in the shower.


Turntables are valuable for viewing your trees before and during designing them.  One should definitely be on your bonsai tools list. 

Headed to a workshop?  If you don't want to drag your turntable ... the small flat "innards" of a lazy-susan will work miracles!  The 6" inch size will hold up to 200 pounds (91 kg.)  If you don't have huge trees, no need to purchase a larger one.  Slip it into your tool bag and leave it there!  You will always be ready.   

A Word of Caution: Edges are sharp, wrap with a small towel when storing and be careful handling. (You could also build your mini-turntable by adding a sandwich of two pieces of thin wood.)


Fertilizer directions are not all the same. This is an important bonsai tree tip! 

When using the dissolve-in-water types be especially careful to read and follow instructions. Some brands call for one teaspoon, other containers may look very similar but suggest one tablespoon (which of course is three times of the amount!) 

Misreading these instructions can be disastrous!   Read more about bonsai fertilizer.

Compound Leaf Notes

Compound leaves can easily be made to look smaller by cutting the leaves in half. Cut in between leaflets.

It will make them appear smaller without obvious cuts and it will not damage the plant.  

There are only two leaves in this illustration, there are many leaflets.

Don't try to photograph compound leaf plants at night.  The leaves are closed up and not attractive.

Where to Go From Here

Leave bonsai tree tips and see 'Ten Steps to Good Bonsai'

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